It’s Up to You!

I have been in a weird mood over the past 4/5 days, probably because I had the last session of a 6-week self-management course for people with long-term health problems on Friday. In some ways, it’s a relief: the last couple of weeks have been difficult and I had to drag myself to the sessions. I also had to drive an hour each way to attend the sessions, which lasted for 2 and a half hours, so most of Friday was swallowed up and I was left exhausted.

On the other hand, the course has been very helpful. It has underscored the links between mental and physical health; so much of what we covered applies to both, even techniques that seem unrelated to either physical or mental illnesses. We were all given a workbook, which is very useful because it gathers together the various ways of treating or dealing with long-term health problems. I knew most of the information before, but now it’s easy to access when I’m feeling worse — especially as I have highlighted the book! I also plan to write the notes I took during sessions into the book, or at least to attach them to it, for future reference.

The focus of the course was how to be a good self-manager and it emphasised how much control we all have over our lives. None of us asks for health problems, but we can all decide how to deal with our conditions. I might have little control over how I feel when my anxiety and depression are at their worst, but I can put safety nets into place when I feel well which will help me to cope.

I’ve learnt a lot of this over the past couple of years, but the course has revitalised me and I’m determined to do all I can to take care of myself. Some habits have slipped lately, like healthy eating and exercise, despite my knowing that I feel much better when I keep up the habits. The course took an active approach to dealing with health problems, which reminded me that I need to be proactive in managing my life. Nobody else is going to sort out my problems.

Maybe that sounds bleak to you, but it highlights

a). The fact that your problems can be dealt with, if not solved

b). You have the power to regain control of your life

Isn’t that empowering? Sure, you will have to take baby steps — at first, anyway — and there will be times when you feel demotivated and can’t appreciate your progress, but you can control a great deal of what happens in your life.

Often, when you have long-term health problems, you fall into the trap of thinking your life will never change and that it cannot change. But you can change your life. Sometimes it’s too difficult to make any changes and that’s okay, but most of the time it is easier to make changes than it is to cling to self-pity and martyrdom. You will be better off in the long-term, of course, but making changes can have a massive impact in the short-term too. Even small changes help to change your mindset.

Two changes have made a big difference to my quality of life. One is a big change, which happened a month ago, and the other is a small change which I have been trying to do every day for the past couple of years. The big change might not be possible for other people in my situation, but the small change is accessible to everybody.

Change 1: I felt like my credit card debt of just under £6,000 was ruling my life. I was paying several hundred pounds a year in interest and although I regularly made extra payments, it didn’t seem to be going down very quickly. Paying as much as I could off my credit card meant that I was falling behind on paying back my parents what I owed them, which was nearly £7,000. Since the only income I have is ESA, I couldn’t get a loan or a  0% credit card. But, I thought, my parents could.

I did my research and did the sums: if my parents took out a loan to cover my credit card balance and what I already owed them, I could pay all my debts in 5-6 years. Without their help, it would take me 5 years to pay back the credit card alone. I presented my findings to my parents, along with a list of assets they could seize if I fell behind on payments, and they agreed that it made sense. They took out a loan for £13,000 and are, in effect, acting as middlemen so that I owe the bank money at a much lower interest rate than my credit card. It also means my parents are no longer loaning me £7,000 interest free.

I feel much better about my financial situation now: I have mapped a path out of debt and I am in control of my money. I have set up a standing order to my parents, to cover the loan repayment and rent every month. My credit card balance is Nil, which feels pretty awesome. My parents are happier and so am I. My figures are based on my current situation, which I am striving to improve by doing freelance work which can fit around my bad days. I hope to be able to pay back the loan sooner than forecast, but it’s fine if I don’t manage to do that.

Change 2: I try to write down 3 things I am grateful for every day. Sometimes I forget, especially during difficult periods, but it’s easy to return to. If I forget to do it in the evening, I can do it the next morning. Sometimes the things I write down are ‘big’ in terms of my life, such as a good weekend away with my best friends, but most of them are ‘small’ — delicious food, reading a book, listening to my favourite songs, stroking my dog, walking in the woods, sunshine…

You can be grateful for experiences, people, possessions, your senses, plans for the future, memories, etc. Anything you want can be included. If you don’t want to write them down, you can say them aloud, mention them in a prayer or simply think about them. There is always something to be grateful for, no matter how awful your life seems to be at the moment. Some of the things that frustrate me remind me of things I’m grateful for: I don’t like having to live with my parents, but I am extremely grateful for my parents and many of the things they do.

Making changes doesn’t have to be complicated — unless you want it to be

Think about what you would like to change and come up with as many possible choices as possible. Don’t reject anything; crazy ideas are often the best ones! When you have a number of possible solutions (I aim for at least 10), start experimenting. What’s the worst that can happen? Nothing changes, but you have the knowledge that you’ve tried your best. You have taken action, regardless of the result.

Also bear in mind that while some changes can be made very quickly, others will take a long time to fully implement. Focus on the changes you can make towards your bigger goals and track the progress you make. For example, although I may take 6 years to get out of debt, I have made a chart which divides my debt into percentages and I colour in the appropriate percentage every time I make a payment. I may do the same to build up an emergency savings fund. It’s a visual reminder that I am progressing, even when it feels like I’m not.

This is the main message I gained from completing the self-management course: if I want my life to improve, it’s up to me.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 6: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an exploration of the state of flow, which occurs when you are challenged by an activity but feel skilled enough to negotiate the tasks involved without arousing anxiety. Flow is most easily recognised by its characteristic effect: a feeling of timelessness. It’s difficult to describe, but everybody has experienced flow. Think about all the times you have been lost in an activity, unaware of anything else around you except what the activity requires.

A flow state can be achieved while performing a wide variety of activities. Reading and writing are common flow activities for me, but I can also achieve the state while running, doing Sudoku puzzles and drawing. Other people have experienced flow through activities such as gardening, horse riding, wood carving, debating, dancing, knitting, cooking, rock climbing… The list is extensive! The main distinction between flow activities and leisure activities which don’t induce a state of flow is that the former involves a high level of engagement, whereas the latter may be a largely passive experience. For example: when you are watching a film which challenges you intellectually so that you are constantly interpreting the images and sound, you may enter a state of flow. In contrast, if you are watching a film which is enjoyable but not stimulating, you may experience pleasure but you won’t experience flow.

Flow explains the intricacies of the flow state, backed up by Csikszentmihalyi’s research, and provides instruction for cultivating flow. People who experience more flow in their lives are happier. In addition to flow being an enjoyable and satisfying state in itself, flow activities tend to result in achievements and improved skills. The activities which are most conducive to flow tend to be personal passions, which help to create meaning in life. By cultivating flow, you will improve multiple aspects of your life.

Part of the beauty of flow is that it’s nothing new and anyone can achieve a flow state, but Csikszentmihalyi’s book acts as a catalyst. It’s useful for people with mental health problems, especially depression, who have lost their sense of purpose and gain less joy from life than they would like. I first read it during a challenging point in my life and I realised that flow could offer a way out; cultivating flow became part of my treatment plan. Flow activities removed me from the misery I was experiencing and helped me, over a long period of time, find meaning in my life.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

The Myth of Independence

Everyone wants to be independent, right? We want to have the freedom to do what we want without relying on other people. We want to live according to our own goals and values. We tend to think that depending on other people will get in the way of living our lives as we wish. That’s all bullshit: nobody is truly independent.

I struggled with having to rely on my parents. I have had mental health problems throughout my adult life, so I’ve depended on them for practical and financial support for thirteen years. I had to leave three jobs because of mental illness; despite providing doctor’s notes explaining my absences, my employers seemed to regard the absences with suspicion and instead of supporting me, put me under more pressure so I ended up resigning. I have paid my parents “rent” to cover some of the grocery and utilities I use since I left college at eighteen, but my finances have been irregular for long periods so my parents have lent me a lot of money. I would not be able to live alone because the benefits I receive barely cover the living expenses I have now, which are minimal.

I also rely on my parents to pick up my antidepressant prescription. I could probably do this myself nowadays, but in the past I have been too scared to leave the house – let alone go into a pharmacy and talk to strangers. My mum also makes sure I eat a proper dinner most of the time, which sounds trivial but makes a big difference when I’m too depressed to cook for myself. My parents accompany me to appointments when needed and make phone calls on my behalf when I’m too anxious to do it myself.

As you can tell, my life is far from independent. I rely on state benefits and my parents just to survive. I rely on the NHS to provide me with treatment for my mental illness – treatment which has helped me to become a little more independent. I have learnt not to feel guilty about being a burden; at least, most of the time – it’s one of my major insecurities during periods of depression and/or anxiety. I have also observed something interesting: I have never met a wholly independent person.

All UK residents are entitled to NHS treatment which is free at the point of service. We rely on our employers to pay us on time and follow workplace laws which protect us. We depend on the police force to prevent crime and convict criminals. We expect supermarkets to sell us good quality food. Even if we consider ourselves to be someone who will never claim benefits (hey, I used to be one of you!), the welfare state still provides a safety net. Whether you like it or not, you are not self-sufficient.

On a personal level, most of us depend on family and/or friends for many things. Moreover, many of us like helping others and enjoy being asked to help out a friend or relative (within reason, of course!) – yet we balk at the idea of asking for help ourselves. I also find it fascinating how some forms of dependence are accepted, while others are criticised by many people. Apparently, living with my parents at 31 is shameful, but if I had kids and relied on them for free childcare nobody would bat an eyelid. Going to an appointment with your mother is viewed as a bit weird, whereas going with a partner is completely normal.

Being so dependent has opened my eyes to the hypocrisy surrounding the idea of “independence”. The major difference between those who think they are independent and the rest of us, is that we are aware of how we depend on others. A lot of people are simply unaware of their own privilege, like the middle class white male who gets a good job because he was recommended by a friend of a friend but is convinced he was the best candidate. Independence is an illusion. Once we give up this illusion, society will be more empathetic and compassionate towards those who need support – in particular, elderly people, people with disabilities and people with mental health problems. When we accept that nobody is wholly independent, we empower everybody to set and achieve their own goals in life, without worrying about how others may judge them.

After all, nobody is going to tell Stephen Hawking “yeah, you might be one of the most successful physicists of our time, but your achievements don’t count because you depend on other people to fulfil your basic physical needs” – so why do so many people think it’s acceptable to ignore some people’s achievements simply because we can’t be as independent as others?

You Are Not Normal!

This week, I read a charming book called What The **** Is Normal? by Francesca Martinez, who faces multiple challenges because she has a terrifying condition: she is a comedian. Oh, and she happens to have Cerebral Palsy but prefers to refer to herself as “wobbly”. Francesca points out that nobody is normal and having a disability — including mental illness — just means you do things differently. We all have different abilities, strengths and skills — so why do we define some people by what they can’t do and not others?

Francesca’s book is awesome and should be read by everyone (especially politicians, in my opinion), but I found it very interesting from the perspective of someone with mental health problems. Francesca and other people with physical disabilities spend their lives being told what they can’t do, often erroneously; myself and others with mental illness spend our lives being told, erroneously, that we can do things. We can “pull ourselves together” and “snap out of it”. My conclusion is that people should mind their own bloody business!

We should also stop labelling each other. You may have noticed that I don’t use terms like “depressives”, instead refering to “people with depression”. I do this because language is powerful and nobody should be indentified by a medical condition. Of course, medical conditions can be part of your identity — I have talked about the merits of mental illness — but it should never be the whole.

I think Francesca is fucking amazing and her message, delivered with the force of her hilarious humour, is vital: you are not normal. Nobody is. So why waste energy bewailing the fact? Whether you have a physical or mental condition that affects how you live, there are far more important things to worry about thatn how “normal” you are.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 5: Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a comprehensive guide to living more mindfully and making space in your life for meditation. It’s great for beginners, but is also valuable for those who are more experienced in mindfulness meditation. It’s simply written, without being condescending or over-explaining. I don’t use the book every time I meditate, but I return to it time after time for inspiration, clarification or guidance.

Mindfulness meditation is about being in the moment, as opposed to thinking about what you need to do or what has already happened. You might be so caught up in your thoughts that you don’t realise you’re doing it, which is why certain thought patterns are hard to stop and breaking them is an essential strategy for achieving good mental health. Mindfulness teaches you to be aware of your thoughts without getting trapped inside of them.

There are a huge variety of meditations and I am yet to try every single one, but those I have tried are all useful and I have several favourites. Wherever You Go is more of a reference book than your typical self-help guide, despite being easy and enjoyable to read. Because it is centred on practising mindfulness meditation, you will often find yourself impelled to stop reading and start meditating – which is no bad thing!

Since I began making an effort to be more mindful, I find it easier to stop letting negative thoughts run amok and control me. I am, in general, calmer and happier. I have also found that mindfulness helps me to employ other strategies to improve my mental health; I benefit more from using the CBT techniques I learnt in counselling and can use self-care skills more effectively. It’s a pretty powerful weapon to have in your arsenal because mindfulness influences every part of your life.

If you are interested in dabbling in mindfulness meditation, this book is an excellent starting point. It will guide you through your first attempts, when it feels impossible to get past the chatter of your mind, and help you to live more mindfully. Mindfulness is a practice: there is no stopping point where you have reached the pinnacle of mindfulness. Wherever You Go is not the kind of book you grow out of or move past – think of it as a lifelong companion in your endeavours.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Doing What Works for You

A lot of people have strong (and often unfounded) opinions about how to tackle mental health problems. The variety and sheer number of opinions can be confusing and overwhelming, but it underlines the need for individuals to do what works for them when dealing with mental illness. Some of your personal ways of coping might seem counter-intuitive or downright weird to other people, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to experiment and figure out which strategies are most effective for your lifestyle and mental health issues.

I went away at the weekend, staying in a Hampshire caravan park with my three best friends. I really enjoyed it because my anxiety wasn’t aggravated by being around strangers, we brought our own food and drink (partly to keep costs down) so I wasn’t exposed to an unfamiliar bar or restaurant and when we went for a walk on the beach, although other people were around I wasn’t forced to interact with them. Perhaps most importantly, because our focus was on catching up with each other we didn’t plan any activities or sightseeing, which meant I wasn’t under any pressure. It might sound boring to other people, but I had a lot of fun and felt at ease 90% of the time. Unlike other weekends away, I came home tired (I struggle with sleeping in strange places) but not drained.

I don’t care if anyone reads this post and thinks I must be boring; though I would argue that the boring people are those who can’t entertain themselves! I don’t care if some of my methods of coping with my mental illness seem odd, like my preferring to drive because I find it much less stressful than using public transport. I think we should all aim to be understanding, instead of judging other people’s behaviour. If you come across somebody who uses an unusual coping strategy, keep an open mind and ask questions – you might discover something new which works for you

Conversely, you might find that some popular strategies don’t work for you. That’s all right: mental health treatments are varied and variable. As long as you give treatments a fair shot, it’s fine to decide it doesn’t work for you. However, I will point out that sometimes strategies that haven’t worked for you in the past will work for you in the future, so it’s worth trying them out again after six months/a year/whatever works for you. For example, many CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) techniques don’t work for me all the time; their efficacy depends on how I’m feeling and what else is going on in my life. I had to accept that despite CBT’s excellent reputation, it is not a panacea. However, if I had decided not to use any CBT techniques at any time, I would have dismissed strategies which work very well for me at some points in my life.

The bottom line is you have to do your own research. Be guided by what the authorities say, but don’t be disheartened if the most popular mental health treatments don’t work for you. Stray off the beaten track and experiment to find out whether something a little unusual or quirky works for you – as long as it’s safe to do so. Most of all, ignore other people’s opinions and do what works for you.

Should You Get a Pet to Help Depression?

I will start by pointing out the obvious: hoping to help depression should never be the only reason to get a pet. I’m also assuming that you like animals, are capable of looking after a pet and are looking for other benefits of pet ownership, like companionship. It’s also preferable to rescue a pet from a shelter, but I refuse to judge anyone who buys pets from responsible breeders. I’m assuming that readers would also take practicalities like finance and work hours into account when deciding whether to have a pet and when deciding on which type or breed of animal to get. However, this post is not about the pros and cons of pets in general – it’s about pets and depression.

There is considerable proof that pets are good for mental health. There are groups who arrange to take dogs (and sometimes other animals) into hospitals and residential homes because interacting with animals has many benefits for humans. Every so often, you will come across news reports saying that a new study has discovered that people with pets are happier/less stressed/in better mental health. There is also the intuitive feeling, present in all animal lovers, that having a pet will improve your life.

Full disclosure: although I had wanted my own dog since I was a very young child, a major reason for my getting one was that I thought it would help my depression. Which is why I feel qualified to write this post.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that a pet is not a miracle cure. You can’t expect a cute puppy to dramatically improve your mental health overnight. You should also consider that the responsibility of pet ownership puts a lot of pressure on you, which can be detrimental to your mental health. I advise anyone with mental health problems to ensure that they have a strong support network in place before they think about getting a pet. If your mental illness worsens, who will look after the pet? In my case, I live with my parents and could rely on them for practical and emotional support.

In my experience, receiving the unconditional love of a dog is invaluable. Taking care of my dog, Roxie, gave my life a sense of purpose and – in the long term – boosted my self-esteem. During the darkest times, she gave me a reason to live. But there were still dark times. Roxie did not cure my depression. She improved my life in general, but the effects on my mental health are difficult to determine.

When she died in September 2013, the day before her 10th birthday, my mental health was better than it had been since I was a young child, but Roxie can’t take all the credit: antidepressants, drama therapy, a depression group and great friends all helped. I was devastated by her death, but strong enough to cope. If she had died when she was much younger and my depression was worse, I dread to think what might have happened. That’s something else to bear in mind when you consider getting a pet: you will have to deal with their death.

I can’t, in all conscience, recommend getting a pet as an effective way of helping depression or any other mental illness. But neither can I say it’s a terrible idea. Just over a month after Roxie’s unexpected death, I got a puppy – another springer spaniel, in fact. While my mental health has improved enough to make me less reliant on my dog as a reason to live, he certainly forces me to make positive changes in my life. Even having to leave the house every day to walk him means a lot – especially when I faced my anxiety and took him out by myself earlier this year, something I had not done since Roxie was young. He is sweet and very affectionate, which makes me feel loved and valued. When I wake up or come home from somewhere, he is ecstatic to see me. These things mean a lot.

In conclusion, pets can have positive effects on your mental health – but that should be just one of many considerations. Don’t decide on a whim; take your time planning and researching. Discuss the idea with people close to you. Borrow someone else’s pet to see how you get on. Above all, never set out with high expectations when you get a pet – it’s not fair on the pet and it’s not fair on you.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 4: The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau

The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau is a call for revolution. It’s about challenging convention and figuring out what you want from life, not what others expect you to want. It’s about discovering a lifestyle which works for you – whether that means travelling the world or living on an isolated mountaintop, working a few hours a day or making your work your life, spending your time partying or wandering alone. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to look past the limitations put on you by society and live your dream.

Guillebeau is living his dream and uses his experiences to explain and illustrate his points throughout the book, but he also features many other people as case studies or examples. You might not want to follow Guillebeau’s lifestyle of frequent travelling (I don’t) but there is plenty of inspiration for different types of people. The Art of Non Conformity will appeal to anyone who has wondered “why should life be like this?”

It’s refreshing to read a book that encourages you to follow all of your crazy goals. So many lifestyle guides and self-help books take the opposite approach, asking you to reduce your goals – or abandon them – and focus on what’s “realistic” or “achievable”. The problem is, we don’t know what is achievable until we try. Throughout history, people have achieved what was previously believed to be impossible. Many of those things have become banal – I’m typing this post on a laptop that is more powerful than any computer that existed a few decades ago, yet it’s not the best model available (by a long shot) and although it’s purple and I like it, it is not particularly impressive. Some ordinary tasks, like online banking and internet shopping, have only taken off in the past decade. What if the people who originally had these ideas gave up their goals because they seemed unlikely to succeed?

The Art of Non Conformity teaches you to become a trailblazer. It doesn’t matter if your goals are small or weird or unique to you: you can experiment and discover new ways to lead your life. You might have an innovative idea that could change the world, or you might want to work out how you can do as many of your favourite activities for as long as possible. It doesn’t matter – be the trailblazer for your own, personal lifestyle.

It’s early days, but I have been inspired by The Art of Non Conformity and I’m trying to create the life I want. Guillebeau presents a range of advice and I can’t do it justice by summarising everything, but my favourite piece of advice is to write a to-stop-doing list. This is what it sounds like: a lists of tasks which waste your time and sap your energy, getting in the way of you achieving your goals. My list includes “watching TV programmes I wouldn’t bother recording” and “stressing about ‘what-ifs’”. If you would like to change your life and are looking for inspiration and ideas, read The Art of Non Conformity and check out the blog at www.chrisguillebeau.com

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Learning to Be Vulnerable

A lot of our fears and anxieties centre on one key fear: that of exposing ourselves. No, I don’t mean literal nakedness – that’s a cinch compared to what I’m talking about, emotional vulnerability. It’s natural to keep our emotions, feelings and thoughts hidden; in many circumstances, revealing them does leave you vulnerable to harm. From an evolutionary viewpoint, revealing fear is dangerous and exposes you to predators. It makes sense for a caveman to pretend he is fearless and act aggressively when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s a sensible approach in some circumstances nowadays, especially when you can’t trust the people around you. However, in some situations it is better to show your vulnerability.

It’s essential to let your close friends and family see that you can be vulnerable. It’s exhausting to pretend to be confident and self-assured 24/7 and does no favours for the people you care about, who may feel that they can’t show their own vulnerability. It’s natural to feel fear, doubt, shame, sadness, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, etc. By expressing these emotions in an appropriate manner, you teach others that their own feelings are validated and that they can deal with them.

On a wider scale, you are vulnerable whenever you take a risk that exposes you to potential criticism. You aren’t in any physical danger, yet you might get hurt emotionally. However, the alternative is to never take this type of risk; to stagnate. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to your career: success in most fields depends on putting yourself in vulnerable situations, like interviews and submitting work. If you opt out, you don’t progress.

Learning to be vulnerable involves accepting that vulnerability is necessary if you are to grow. It means you start to embrace the benefits of emotionally exposing yourself, such as gaining constructive feedback which you can use to improve. You can start with a few forays into showing your vulnerability and gradually increase the frequency. You will notice a paradox: the more vulnerable you become (or rather, the more you demonstrate your vulnerability), the more your confidence grows.

Vulnerability is linked to confidence because it cultivates self-acceptance. When you come to terms with your vulnerability, you begin to see that your flaws and failings are often mirror images of your strengths. You will also realise that most people accept your vulnerability – and many welcome the opportunity to interact with you on a “real” level, which is only achieved when you show yourself to be vulnerable. You will gain pleasure from situations which depend on exposing yourself to emotional danger, because taking the risk and being human is preferable to the alternative.

Think about dating: if you are to form a real connection, you must open yourself up and be vulnerable. Sure, your date might not like you or they might criticise you, but so what? You aren’t right for each other and need to move on to the next person. The alternatives are to never ask anyone on a date, which might get very lonely, or to put on a false front which will protect your feelings but also prevent you from interacting with others in any way that’s not superficial. The same is true of other situations – if you submit a piece of work which is important to you, for example, it might be rejected but at least there is a chance that it will be accepted. The alternative in this case is to never submit important work, which is pointless.

Being vulnerable can be painful. Criticism hurts more when you care: I can cope with rejections for stories which don’t mean much to me, but every rejection for a story I love cuts me to the core. But the pain is worth it because being vulnerable is the only way you can invite anything meaningful into your life. And it’s less painful than stagnating and never achieving your goals or forming close relationships.

See also: Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway

Don’t Dwell on Other People’s Negativity

Sometimes I’m convinced that some people exist only to make everyone else miserable. To bring us all down when we feel a little better than usual. To rip apart our dreams. Of course, the reality is that these people are unhappy and haven’t learnt to deal with their emotions in constructive ways. They criticise, insult, drain, deride and belittle other people in misguided attempts to express or assuage their own negative emotions. It’s useful to regard them with empathy – not so that you can steer them onto a different path (only they can do that for themselves), but so that you can decide how to handle these people and their negativity.

First, don’t expect them to change. Change is possible, but it’s not inevitable and you have to deal with certainties, i.e. their current behaviour.

Secondly, you must prioritise your own health – which includes your mental health. You do not have to be someone’s scapegoat or whipping boy. You do not have to accept another person’s bad behaviour.

With these points in mind, determine how big an impact certain negative people have on your own wellbeing. Decide whether or not you would like to change the situation – would you be content for things to continue as they are? If not, think about how you could change the situation.

In some cases, cutting all contact with someone is the best solution. If a so-called friend or family member continuously treats you like shit, they are not worth your love and attention. You deserve to be treated with respect, at the very least. It may take some planning to cut contact with certain people, for example, anyone you live or work with, but if you can’t cope with their behaviour it will be worth the additional short term hassle. It is also helpful to discuss your decision with other people, whether close friends and relatives or a mental health professional.

A less drastic alternative is to cut down on the amount of contact you have with the person in question. If they demand to know why you no longer phone them every week or spend hours listening to them whinge and moan, simply explain that spending a lot of time with them is having a negative impact on your own health. Don’t attack them and try to be specific, for example: “when you complain about your work, I feel drained and dejected because I can’t work at the moment and wish I had work problems. I know it’s not your fault, but it isn’t mine either and I don’t want to spend time with you when it leaves me feeling bad.” Keep the focus on the behaviours which impact you, not the person themselves. You can reassess your decision at regular intervals, so that if the person does change in the future, you can spend more time with them without it leaving you feeling worse.

Another option is to change the way you spend time with negative people. If meeting in a café usually involves your companion ranting about their relationship, try meeting up for a dance class or to go to the cinema. You can still chat beforehand and afterwards (and even during, if the activity allows), but because the time is broken up to make room for the activity there is little opportunity for a prolonged monologue. A change of scenery can change people’s behaviour even if you can still chat throughout – going for a walk, for example, may be more conducive to positive, two-sided conversations. Plus you can speed up if your companion starts moaning, so that they are too short of breath to rant!

You can also refuse to engage in someone’s negativity. This takes a little practice to build up your confidence in doing it, but it’s very effective. When the negative person starts complaining, say “I’m sorry, but I have a no-negativity policy. If you would like to find solutions to your problems, I’d be delighted to help but I can’t be a sounding board because it affects my mood and wellbeing.” If they criticise you, say “I disagree, because…” and give evidence for your opinion. For example, “You might think I’m lazy, but I disagree because I work hard in the office and I’m studying in my spare time.” If their criticism is true, acknowledge it and move on. If they continue to criticise you, say “I’m aware of your feelings. There’s no need to repeat them.” If they respond negatively, walk away.

Walking away is a great strategy because it removes you from the situation, which prevents you from feeling worse, and gives you space to clear your mind and assess the situation from a more objective perspective. If you have nowhere else to go, lock yourself in a toilet cubicle until you feel more equipped to deal with the situation. Negative people often criticise this strategy as “running away” but it’s actually a way of facing the reality of the situation. If you stay and let someone’s negativity bring you down, you are not in a position to determine the truth of what they are saying. Your viewpoint will be skewed by your now-negative thoughts and emotions. If you were in physical danger, you would have no qualms about walking away – why should it be any different when your mental health is endangered?

Finally, try not to give negative people your headspace. Their criticisms and insults are their opinions. Even if there’s some truth in their words, dwelling on them is unhelpful. Pick apart their words and look for evidence of whether there is any truth in them. If there is not, there is no value in dwelling on the words. If there is some truth and it bothers you, think of constructive solutions. Other people’s negativity is theirs – never let it become yours.